Of the three films Scorsese has been nominated for in the 00's, Gangs of New York and The Aviator were both huge period epics that academy voters typically favor. Unfortunately both were too uneven to really love. The Departed, on the other hand, is a nasty, violent, modern-day crime thriller that is a remake to boot, yet the odds makers have deemed it his best chance for the Oscar. Many have speculated that it's because The Departed is a "return to form" for Scorsese, who has been pigeonholed (somewhat erroneously considering the entire scope of his work) as a master of the gangster movie, though the cynic in me wonders if the fact that the film turned in his best box office receipts since Cape Fear had something to do with it.
Whether an Oscar is in its cards or not, The Departed is certainly solid work. Based on the 2002 Chinese flick Infernal Affairs (which, despite my enthusiasm for Hong Kong cinema, I have yet to see) The Departed follows two Boston city cops as they graduate from the police academy. One of them, Colin Sullivan (played by Boston native Matt Damon) quickly rises through the ranks to an elite detective squad, despite being a mole for a Southie crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). The other cop, Bill Carstigan (played by Leonardo Dicaprio, who has taken Robert Deniro's role as Scorsese's go-to guy for a leading man) is sent undercover to infiltrate Costello's crime family. The story involves drug deals and stolen microprocessors being sold to the Chinese government, the mechanics of which are mostly there to provide a way for Damon and Dicaprio to play cat-and-mouse as they try to discover the identity of the "rat" in each other's organization.
The Departed shares many superficial similarities to Gangs of New York. Besides both starring Leonardo Dicaprio, Gangs of New York and The Departed have Scorsese leaving the world of mafia wiseguys to explore the Irish underworld. Dicaprio performance is more assured in The Departed than it was in Gangs, but that might just have to do with being more comfortable with a Southie accent as opposed to a 19th century Irish immigrant one. Despite being unable to grow convincing facial hair, Dicaprio is compelling as a man straddling the line between cop and criminal, constantly in fear of being caught in the web of lies he's strung for himself. After years of being the face that spawned a million Tiger Beat photo spreads, it's kinda gratifying to watch Dicaprio bash the teeth out of a bookie's face with the butt of a pistol.
In both The Departed and Gangs of New York, Dicaprio gains the trust of a sociopathic crime boss-slash-father figure with the goal of ultimately betraying him. It is in this aspect where Gangs actually has an edge. Daniel Day Lewis's William Cutting was a perfect mixture of slow-tongued charisma married to an unpredictable violent temper. Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello is, well, Jack Nicholson, which means he's there to chew scenery. That's not to say it's not enjoyable to watch him shoot people in the head, throw cocaine on hookers and ask underage girls woefully inappropriate things, but Frank Costello never becomes more than a one-dimensional villian (which is a problem with the script more than it is with the actor).
As the detective working both sides of the law, Matt Damon's Sullivan is the more interesting of the two villians, but his character poses many problems to the story. Wanting simultaneously to be a rising star within the department while helping his Costello be one step ahead of the cops, Sullivan's conflict is compelling, though barely sketched. It seems that Sullivan is willing to risk his career and reputation all because Costello bought him groceries once when he was a kid. And while The Departed is a movie about deception, Damon plays his character's conflict a little too internally, making him almost a cipher for the first half of the movie. Thankfully, by the time the third act rolls around, he's finally able to break loose.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Martin Sheen as the elderly Captian Queenan embodies the paternal weight that's missing from his villianous counterpart Costello. But the flashier roles go to his shit-talking partner Lieutenant Dingham (played by Mark Wahlberg, another Boston native) and the always amusing Alec Baldwin. Costello's enforcer Mr. French (played by Ray Winstone) is good for some gravelly voiced tough guy-isms (his "Fuck it," at the end is one of the more hardcore moments I've seen in awhile). Vera Farmiga does her best as Madolyn (the psychiatrist that dates Sullivan and fucks Carstigan) even though the love story is pretty badly presented. Her role should have remained split into two characters as it was in Infernal Affairs. As it stands, using her as the connection between the two leads comes off as clunky and contrived.
Filmed and edited in Scorsese's inimitable style of montages and flashbacks, The Departed sets a relentless pace. Often though, the film moves a bit too quickly for its own good. The intercutting between stories is often too hectic, jarring the audience when we just want to absorb the scene. There's a scene with Mr. French and Costello wistfully talking about their wives, in the middle of which we are treated to a quick flashback of Mr. French garrotting his wife. The shot is short but undeniably ugly, not to mention unnecessary to the story besides further illustrating that French is an evil sonofabitch. The story jumps around so much that certain key plot points become muddled. It's unclear whether the couple that Costello and French execute in the beginning is Carstigan's mob-connected uncle (who was also a gangster, thus giving him his in to the crime family) or just some random people they blow away for fun. Hell, the first time I saw the movie I thought it was the shopkeeper Costello shakes down at the beginning and his daughter.
Scorsese obviously embraces his position as one of the premier craftsmen of cinematic violence. Throughout The Departed, the camera never flinches from the bloodletting, but the violence starts to spiral out of control as the movie progresses. One major character is dispatched with all the dignity of a Wile E. Coyote splat and by the end of the film, the whole thing turns into a bonanza of spurting headwounds that it becomes inappropriately comical. The ending is also a point of contrition to most viewers. What should have been left depressingly open (as I've read it was in Infernal Affairs) is wrapped up in much too pat fashion. Oh, and the final shot of the "rat" crawling across a railing, though thematically consistent with the story, comes off with the subtley of a fart joke.
I'm sure all my bitching leaves the impression that I disliked the film, but I actually did enjoy it. It's just that the movie's flaws stand so glaringly against what is otherwise a tense cinematic experience. Though The Departed is considered a throwback to Scorsese's crime epics Goodfellas and Casino, it shares with them only their subject, not their tone. The Departed is a psychological thriller about deception and lies, modern rather than nostalgic; a film whose plot could only exist in the era of cellphones. It's laced with enough dark wit and humor to keep the proceedings from becoming oppressive, and has a well chosen rock soundtrack to keep the mood plugging along (though from this point on, I'm deducting points whenever Scorsese uses "Gimme Shelter").
Overall, The Departed benefits from Scorsese keeping things entertaining rather than going for "epic" and "deep". We'll see if that reverse psychology will finally earn him his Oscar this Sunday. If it doesn't, who the fuck cares?
See my review of Taxi Driver as well as a new one for Hard Candy at my DVD shelf.